Obama's moves over nuclear weapons need putting in context. The US no longer needs them to equalise the USSR's conventional forces, but others might need nuclear weapons to equalise the US military

It was Les Aspin, President Clinton's first Defense Secretary, who first formulated the great truth about nuclear weapons in the post Cold War world. It was nuclear deterrence, he noted, which had enabled the US to ‘equalize' the conventional superiority of the Soviet Union through the long decades of confrontation. But in the new world of the 1990s, the US enjoyed unmatched conventional military power. "We're the ones", Aspin cautioned, "who could wind up being the equalizee." Conclusion: accepting that nuclear weapons could not be disinvented, it had   nonetheless become the US national interest to do whatever it could to "reduce the salience" of nuclear weapons in international affairs.

Obama, then, is only picking up where Clinton left off - and, despite the messianic tone of his original appeal to "rid the world of nuclear weapons", he has made no bones about how he sees this serving the US national interest. Traditional East/West nuclear deterrence is now beside the point. The real threat to the US is no longer Soviet aggression, but nuclear weapons appearing in the hands of ‘rogue states' or, even worse, terrorists. The logical response is to seek to reduce the number of bombs, and bomb-making material, world-wide; to encourage better safe-guarding of the weapons that exist; and to buttress the non-proliferation regime. Hence the current slew of nuclear initiatives - the new START treaty with Russia, bracketed by a Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) which contains new promises of non-use by the US of its nuclear arsenal, and by the Washington summit on nuclear security.

The only puzzle, perhaps, is that those promises of non-use in the NPR did not go further. The audience is the non-nuclear generality of nations who will gather in New York in May for the five-yearly review of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). As their price for preserving or tightening the non-proliferation regime, the non-nuclear weapon states (NNWS) demand that the nuclear powers show progress on the disarmament agenda which is meant to be their side of the non-proliferation bargain. (Strange, really, when you reflect that it is the NNWS who have even more to fear from proliferation than those who already have the bomb; but the international dynamic seems stuck on the conception that non-proliferation is a favour done by those who have no bomb to those who do.)

In terms of declaratory policy, what advocates of nuclear disarmament are really looking for from the nuclear powers are NOFUN declarations - no first use of nuclear weapons. In other words, promises that nuclear weapons would never be used in response to conventional, biological, chemical or any other kind of attack, except nuclear. If all nuclear powers adopted such positions, then none could dispute the desirability of complete nuclear disarmament all round. The issue of ‘whether' would have been dealt with, and all that would be left would be ‘how'.

But Obama did not offer a NOFUN declaration. Instead, he offered a rather more complicated guarantee of immunity to NNWS party to the NPT, and playing by the rules. Why this reticence?

US briefing suggested that in this way the US could keep the pressure on Iran and N Korea. But is the spectre of an American pre-emptive nuclear strike against such proliferators even remotely credible? A massive conventional pre-emptive attack, yes. Nuclear retaliation for nuclear aggression by the proliferator, yes. But nuclear first use, even against a defiant proliferator? Never.

Strangely, US reticence is probably as much or more driven by the desire to keep on the table the option of first use against - the Russians. Objectively, this seems pretty absurd in the circumstances of 2010. But resort to nuclear weapons to deter overwhelming Soviet conventional assault on W Europe has been the foundation of NATO strategy for sixty years. A revision of that strategy is due for agreement by the NATO allies this autumn: a NOFUN declaration now by the US would have driven a coach and horses through the NATO consultation process. (And similar considerations apply to the US's Pacific allies, who have abstained from seeking their own nuclear weapons in the face of China, relying instead on the US nuclear umbrella.)

On top of that, the US will have been conscious that any NOFUN declaration at this point would have rendered instantly redundant their residual nuclear weapons based in Europe. The whole point of such forward-based weapons was, historically, to thrust the prospect of NATO first use into the lowering face of the Soviet Union. A number of European allies have already called for the withdrawal of these weapons. The US has no particular desire to keep them there. But it wants such a fundamental change in NATO's strategy and defence posture to come about as the result of careful debate within the alliance, and not in response to a piece of populism by German foreign minister Westerwelle.

And it wants to take a trick with the withdrawal card - the trick of countervailing Russian reductions. The forward-based nuclear weapons, having secured deterrence for decades, should perform a final service by acting as bargaining chips in a further round of nuclear disarmament, this time covering ‘tactical' weapons. Such weapons, of which the Russians have inordinate numbers, constitute a particular safeguarding hazard.

Today's Russia is not going to forsake its nuclear arsenal: it, too, understands that the nuclear shoe is now on the other foot, and that where it was once the ‘equalizee' nuclear power now helps it ‘equal' the US, and indeed China. But, by its current careful steps, the US administration can hope to advance towards a world which, if not nuclear-free, at least has fewer and better-secured nuclear weapons, and one in which nuclear ‘status' counts for less.






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The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.